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Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record in Kazakhstan in 2006

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Kazakhstan has a multiparty parliamentary system dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev's Otan Party. Nazarbayev was re-elected to another seven-year term in December 2005 in elections that fell short of international standards. The government’s human rights record remained poor despite some modest improvements. Democratic institutions remained weak. Since its independence from the Soviet Union, the country has not held an election that met international standards. The constitution concentrates power in the presidency, permitting the president to control regional and local governments and to exercise significant influence over the legislature and judiciary. The media climate remained hostile for independent and opposition press, which were subjected to restrictive criminal and civil libel penalties for criticizing the president and other government officials. Legislation enacted during the year tightened government control over the media and the government continued to restrict freedom of assembly, association, and the activities of NGOs. The government also restricted and interfered with activities of opposition leaders and parties and suspended non partisan political party building activities conducted by foreign NGOs. Military hazing, detainee and prisoner abuse, unhealthy prison conditions, and arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of government opponents, continued to be problems. The judiciary was not independent, and there was pervasive corruption. The society is ethnically diverse with a high degree of interethnic tolerance. Despite a somewhat less favorable legal environment for religious freedom and some interference from local authorities, religious communities continued to report general government support for the rights of religious communities, including minority religious groups. Trafficking in persons remained a problem, although the government enacted a comprehensive set of legislative amendments to strengthen its ability to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers, and to increase the amount of resources devoted to victim protection and prevention. There were reports of societal discrimination and violence against women.

The United States vigorously advocated progress on human rights and democracy as an integral component of bilateral engagement and an essential complement to economic and security cooperation. In keeping with this integrated approach, numerous U.S. assistance and training programs in the country had a human rights component, including programs involving the military, law enforcement, and other government agencies. Support for the rule of law, civil society, and independent media remained priorities. The United States continued to encourage the government to live up to its human dimension commitments as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

During the year, officials traveled to the country to raise democracy and human rights concerns at the highest levels. President George Bush met with President Nazarbayev on September 29 and pressed for progress on democracy and human rights. On the same day, a joint U.S.-Kazakhstani statement was issued in which the country pledged democratic reforms and human rights progress. The ambassador conducted press conferences and media interviews throughout the year, during which he reiterated the U.S. policy of promoting democratic reform and supporting human rights and civil society.

The December 2005 presidential election failed to meet international standards. President Bush sent a letter to President Nazarbayev who subsequently promised President Bush that he would ensure the thorough investigation of and redress for electoral violations. The government conducted an investigation and acknowledged some violations. Overall, however, the government refuted many alleged electoral violations and failed to investigate them fully. At numerous bilateral and multilateral meetings, high-level U.S. officials encouraged the government to bring electoral laws and practices in line with international standards and to hold direct elections for local leaders.

The United States remained committed to and engaged the government at every level on the non partisan promotion of political pluralism and governance that reflected the political will of citizens. U.S. officials urged the government to rescind restrictive political party registration requirements; to register opposition parties; and to cease harassment of opposition parties and their leaders, including ending arrest, detention, and travel restrictions.

U.S.-funded projects provided non partisan, capacity-building support to improve political party, civil society, and independent media participation in the electoral process. U.S. partners trained 42 political party members in organizational techniques. However, the government suspended the program during the year due to legal objections, and intense U.S. engagement to resolve the issue was unsuccessful. The United States designed an exchange program for a leading television station to observe and videotape the U.S. midterm election campaign, which was later aired as a documentary in the country.

Other U.S. programs promoted good governance, citizen participation in the decision-making process, and civic education. The United States issued several small grants to independent, grassroots NGOs for projects encouraging local self-governance, including a grant to teach elderly citizens to assert their property and consumer rights. During the year, the U.S. Government completed a six-year program focused on secondary school civic education, which reached more than 44,000 students in 670 schools. In addition to supporting the development of a civics textbook, the program introduced interactive learning methodology and complementary extracurricular activities such as local government days, student action committees, and summer camps.

To promote media freedom, U.S. officials pressed the government on media freedom, urging it to bring its media laws in line with the standards of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In June the ambassador met with high-level government officials to express U.S. concerns over proposed restrictive media amendments and criticized the amendments during a press conference following their adoption. U.S. officials continued to urge the government to rescind media restrictions. U.S.-funded media programs provided professional, legal, and technical support for media outlets and media-related organizations on a variety of issues, including libel, advertisement, language requirements, labor legislation, election law, licensing, and intellectual property. An ongoing U.S.-funded program provided a legal support network for journalists. Through U.S. programs, seven private media outlets received production grants, 130 media professionals were trained via seminars and workshops, and nine broadcast media and two print media outlets benefited from onsite training. Over 20 current and 100 future judges received training on the rights of journalists and the media under domestic law and international norms.

The United States continued its support for an Internet-based "news factory" that enabled journalists and media outlets to learn how to use software that enabled them to share and publicize news reports and data. U.S. funds launched the first independent Central Asian news syndicate providing objective news on a wide range of topics. A U.S. grant helped support a popular and well respected independent news website. The United States also maintained its support for a domestic media advocacy NGO engaged in monitoring and publicizing abuses of journalistic rights and freedom of speech. A U.S. partner continued to produce the biweekly TV program Aina ("Mirror") with the help of a network of regional TV journalists who contributed reports. During the year, the journalists produced stories on students in Pavlodar facing solitary confinement as punishment for drug use, brutal beating of inmates by Pavlodar prison officials, labor migration and local attitudes towards migrants, and a high school course on the dangers of terrorism.

The United States continued to support civil society development and civic activism, funding 79 training events for 209 NGOs during the year. U.S.-supported NGOs initiated 25 new advocacy campaigns during the year. The United States funded a series of democracy information centers in the country, providing human rights and democracy information and training, offering Internet access, and hosting discussion clubs. The U.S. Government supported a multilateral NGO initiative to promote greater local government transparency through the Open Budget Initiative. The program promoted civic engagement in the development of local government budgets to promote those that were effective and responsive to citizens' needs.

A U.S.-supported civil society association continued its active role in policy dialogue, advocacy, and representation of broad NGO interests. The United States also continued its support for a well-known civil society discussion forum in Almaty, and in May the forum opened an affiliate association in Astana. The forum’s activities included programming on freedom and security of the Internet, social democracy in modern Kazakhstan, modernization of the country's political system, and effective political activities for political parties.

Through the U.S.-funded Community Connections Program, ten youth NGO leaders from four regions of the country traveled to the United States in April to engage with their U.S. counterparts and learn best practices. The exchange program focused on developing NGO capacity to support youth activities and development. Upon their return to the country, the participants conducted presentations to introduce their partners to advocacy techniques, public political issues, and volunteerism.

To promote freedom of assembly, U.S. officials urged the government to rescind the ban on public rallies between the end of voting and the announcement of the official election results. In December the ban was removed.

Support for the rule of law, including an independent judiciary, remained a fundamental goal of U.S.-funded programs. To support judicial transparency and accountability, the United States cooperated with the government on a successful program that utilized a video and audio recording system for court proceedings. The system gained significant support from all users, including judges and citizens, and surveys revealed increased confidence in judicial outcomes among judges and defendants. In addition, U.S. partners trained judges on crafting well reasoned and written judicial decisions, worked with the judiciary to prepare a revised code of judicial ethics based on international norms, and provided training and technical assistance for improving the capacity of the national judges association to lobby for judicial independence and the rights of judges.

To assist the judiciary in preparing for the introduction of jury trials in January 2007, the United States partnered with the country's Supreme Court to support a study tour in Moscow for 18 judges to watch jury trials, meet with jury trial judges, and receive training at Russia's premier judicial training centers. With U.S. support, a mock jury trial was recorded for broadcast on national television to educate citizens, the judiciary, and lawyers about the new jury system. Advocacy by a U.S.-funded NGO resulted in the reinstitution of legal ethics as part of the mandatory curriculum for law students, and a U.S. partner developed a legal reasoning and writing curriculum that was taught in a top law school. A U.S. partner NGO produced a highly rated nationally televised forum on the problem of corruption in higher education, specifically focusing on the issue in law schools and its effect on the legal profession. The U.S. also supported a training program for judges, journalists, and court press secretaries designed to increase the transparency of courts. During the year, the U.S. sponsored the translation of a book on endemic corruption in the former Soviet Union, followed by author-led panel discussions in Astana and Almaty. The ambassador and several renowned scholars and human rights activists participated in the discussions, and the events received significant media coverage. In November U.S. officials publicly criticized the demolition of several Hare Krishna homes near Almaty, and the ambassador met with government officials to express concern over the treatment of the Hare Krishnas in their long-running property dispute with local government officials.

The U.S. included mandatory human rights components in all bilateral military training. With U.S. technical assistance, the country continued to reduce incidents of military conscript hazing and abuse through ongoing reforms to its non commissioned officer system.

The United States raised concerns about the government’s treatment of refugees in a March 1 statement to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Permanent Council. During the year U.S. officials encouraged the government to uphold its international anti torture and refugee commitments.

The United States funded a project that increased women's participation in policymaking and promoted government accountability at local levels through the creation of unprecedented public advisory councils that worked with six local governments.

Throughout the year, the United States brought specific concerns regarding religious communities to the attention of the government; limits on the practice of religion were usually corrected by government officials. On September 11, the United States hosted a well-publicized interfaith appeal for tolerance and observance for victims of terrorism with leaders from a variety of religious faiths.

The United States supported its bilateral cooperation with the government on combating human trafficking with a broad civil society assistance strategy. Ongoing U.S. assistance programs focused on continued support and capacity building of crisis centers, hot lines, and shelters, including preventative and rehabilitative vocational training for vulnerable groups. The programs supported nine countertrafficking hot lines, a network of antitrafficking NGOs, consultation centers for labor migrants, dissemination of information among risk groups in vulnerable populations, education of teachers, shelters for victims of trafficking, and repatriation of victims of trafficking. Approximately 6,500 people made calls to antitrafficking hot lines during the year. The U.S. Government, through a local partner, also supported a number of antitrafficking training programs for law enforcement officers and judges in several regions. The United States also worked to launch a broad outreach program to raise law enforcement officials' awareness and knowledge of trafficking crimes and how to collaborate with NGOs to combat trafficking. Finally, the U.S. Government sponsored a liaison program between law enforcement and migration officials of transit and destination countries to encourage efficient and effective international cooperation in detecting, investigating, and prosecuting human trafficking cases.

For more information on the 2006 Supporting Human Rights and Democracy Report, please visit: http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/shrd/2006/

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